It’s been great to see bi-partisan, pro-child-protection bills filed in state legislatures this year. (A sign that Big Religion isn’t as powerful as it once was. States are expanding child sexual abuse statutes of limitations and California is looking to require that clergy report suspected cases of child abuse heard in confession.

But there’s one area in which Big Religion still prevails: religious child medical neglect. Despite the life-and-death nature of this issue, this year, two bills filed in Washington State and Idaho relating to “faith-healing”-child medical neglect died early. It appears that legislators are still willing to sacrifice the health and lives of children in the name of “religious freedom.”

Washington fails to protect children from religious medical neglect

In February, we told you about the bi-partisan Child Health Protection Act in Washington state. It aimed to close a religious exemption loophole that allows parents and guardians to avoid criminal prosecution if they harm or cause the death of a child by denying them necessary medical care and claim that they had applied Christian Science “treatments,” or faith healing, to cure their sick children. (The Christian Science Church promotes prayer over medical care.)

In place of the religious exemption would be the following language: ” . . . health care decisions made in reliance on faith-based practices do not in and of themselves constitute negligent treatment or maltreatment unless any such decision poses a clear and present danger to the health, welfare, or safety of the child.”

The Child-Friendly Faith Project supported the House and Senate bills filed under the Act, even though we believe that all religious exemptions relating to child protection should be removed so that existing laws intended to protect children apply to all young people, regardless of the religious beliefs of their parents or guardians. Despite the bills’ religion-friendly language and a valiant grass-roots effort by American Atheists to push for passage, they weren’t even voted out of committee.

It’s likely that Washington lawmakers didn’t feel motivated to pass the bills given that, a child hasn’t recently died from religious medical neglect in their state. But that might change now that lawmakers have essentially signaled to parents in faith-healing-believing religious organizations that they can neglect the health of their children and not be held accountable.

Idaho keeps the door open for more child deaths to occur

In Idaho, where more children die of religious medical neglect than in any other state, lawmakers considered SB1182, one that tried to please everyone, child advocates and religious zealots alike. In doing so, it was rejected by just about everyone. (We thought the language was convoluted and the bill would have protected no children.)

Its purpose was to keep Idaho’s religious exemption in place but still allow for parents who had been “advised and educated about their child’s declining health, or in instances where the parents were not genuinely treating by spiritual means through prayer” to be prosecuted for child medical neglect.

Like the Washington state bill, SB1182 also died in committee. On the positive side, Idaho lawmakers rejected a bill filed by a member of the Followers of Christ, the church whose members have been responsible for most of the deaths. That bill aimed to direct courts that order emergency medical treatment for a child found to have suffered medical neglect to consider prayer as a legitimate form of medical treatment.

We’ll see what legislators come up with for the 2020 session. In that time, it’s likely that more children will suffer and die from “faith healing”-related medical neglect in Idaho.

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Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment," the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project whose mission is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. She also sits on the board of directors of Foundation Beyond Belief and co-hosts the podcast, "Parenting Beyond Belief." Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work for which she won numerous journalism awards; she has also written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.

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